One way that food sovereignty challenges conventional notions of food security is by insisting that culture is and should be part of food systems. Many definitions of food sovereignty assert a right to “culturally appropriate” food, but who decides what is culturally appropriate? We argue that food and farming “culture” is too often assumed to be static and settled by a default consensus within farming communities, when in fact it is dynamically changing and the subject of significant disagreements. We present findings from two years of participatory action research in rural Yucatan, Mexico that offers glimpses into the process by which cultural values of food and farming are agreed upon, contested, and disseminated. We involved a group of recent high school graduates from a rural municipality in participatory photography work as part of a research project on agrobiodiversity and food sovereignty that we collaboratively presented in the municipality and later at national and international venues. Their work captured moments of agreement and dissent in what constitutes culturally appropriate food. At the same time, the youth researchers used the photography as a means to a stronger voice in defining the kinds of food and agriculture they want for themselves and their community. What is “culturally appropriate” is dynamically worked, never reaching a static consensus, but still affecting food sovereignty in tangible, material ways.
Devon Sampson is a PhD candidate, Environmental Studies, UC Santa Cruz. Devon Sampson’s research in Yucatan, Mexico examines the links between the biodiversity that farmers manage and household food security. He uses a participatory action research approach and methods from ecology and the social sciences to investigate the many ways that agrobiodiversity supports food security in a risky and changing climate and economy. His work contests the idea that diverse farms are expendable in the project of feeding the world.
Chelsea Wills is a social practice artist. Chelsea Wills’s works are often collaborative and participatory, and she using artistic processes to shed new light on issues important to communities. She exhibits widely in the United States, Mexico and Europe. She holds an M.A. in education from UC Berkeley and a BFA form UC Santa Cruz.